Why Is a Salad Called a Salad When There's No Lettuce?

Lettuce discuss.

Chicken salad, potato salad, pasta salad, Waldorf salad — These are staples at potlucks across the country. From church socials to cookouts and family reunions, people come together and share these family recipes with their loved ones. And all of these salads have at least one big thing in common: There's no lettuce. Haven't you ever wondered why they're called salads when there's no lettuce?

What Makes a Salad a Salad?

When we hear "salad" we think of bowls filled to the brim with lush greens, hearty vegetables, fresh herbs, creamy cheeses, and rich dressings. So you might be surprised to learn that the origin of the word "salad" has nothing to do with vegetables and its accoutrements and everything to do with salt.

Originating from the word "sal," meaning salt, salads refer to any number of ingredients that can be mixed or covered with dressings that contain salt. What we now think of as the classic dinner salad has roots in first century Greek and Roman cuisine. The ancient medical practitioner Hippocrates believed vegetables were easily digested, so he taught his patients they should be consumed before the main course. These ancient dinner salads were made of seasonal, chopped raw vegetables topped with a dressing of oil, vinegar, and salt. They are nearly identical to the green salads we enjoy today.

creamy potato salad with cauliflower rice in it
Allrecipes Magazine

In the 19th century, European settlers influenced by German cooks brought the concept of bonded meat salads and bonded potato salads to the United States. These consisted of chopped meats and/or potatoes mixed with vinegars, oils, and salt, and were usually served as the main course, unlike dinner salads, which were traditionally served as appetizers. Many potato salads nod to this old world style by including ingredients like bacon and vinaigrette in their recipes. But these salads didn't reach their full potential until the invention of mayonnaise.

Mayonnaise was invented in 1756 by the chef of the French nobleman and soldier Duc de Richelieu as a celebration food to serve after a great victory in battle. Because of the lack of refrigeration in households at the time, mayo was prepared fresh and only served at high-end restaurants as a fancy sauce.

However, in 1863 Chef Liam Gray of Rhode Island had other plans. He is thought to be the first chef to combine cooked chicken with mayo, grapes, and fresh tarragon to create the earliest version of modern chicken salad. He served it in sandwiches to everyday folks from the refrigerator at his meat market and they were so popular that the entire market was transitioned to a delicatessen. Mayonnaise really took off in the U.S. in the 1920s and '30s when refrigeration made brands like Hellmann's and Duke's household names.

Pulling inspiration from German bonded salads and the newly popularized at-home mayonnaise brands, Americans across the country started whipping up all sorts of salads of their own. Potato salads, chicken salads, tuna salads, and so many more started showing up on dinner tables and potluck spreads all over the country.

This takes us back to our original question: Why is it called salad? The answer is simple — because of the dressing. Today's definition of salad is a variety of cold dishes that include small pieces of food (such as pasta, meat, fruit, or vegetables) mixed with a dressing or mayonnaise.

To put it simply, if it's dressed you can feel confident calling it a salad! And if anyone asks that age old question, "Why is it called salad?" you'll know the answer!

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